Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Coming of Age

Mystery Jets - Twentyone (679, 2008)

I can’t exactly claim to be ahead of the game here and I’m not really sure why it’s taken me a full three months to notice that the Mystery Jets have a new album out. Of all the eagerly hyped British indie bands of recent years, Mystery Jets have struck me as one of the more credible and genuinely exciting. It was something of a shame that by the time their debut album ‘Making Dens’ finally emerged, most people seemed to have forgotten about them, and they ended up somewhat underrated. The riotous drum and chant riot of ‘Zoo Time’ seemed like a somewhat distant memory.

That album’s stylistic diversity, particularly its tendency towards meandering psychedelic folk has been shrewdly abandoned here in favour of a set of crisp, articulate pop songs set in the full flourish of youth. That title is no cheap joke – these are the songs of more successful youthful exploration and abandon – the kind that comes with the benefit of added experience and confidence. There’s even a hint of cynicism on the biting ‘Half in Love with Elisabeth’. It’s all a little bit whimsical, but also touching and endearing.

This album is helmed by hipster Trash DJ and remixer-du-jour Erol Elkan, but his presence is felt much more strongly here than on the new Long Blondes album. What sets the Mystery Jets apart from many of their less ambitious contemporaries is that their conventional instruments are always being used in engaging ways. The guitar lines are spiky and sprightly, the basslines provide counterpoint as well as foundation, the drums are taut and driving and the occasional interjection of synths adds both colour and warmth.

There’s a notable influence of 80s alternative pop here – felt much more keenly than on their debut. I actually attempt to use the word ‘alternative’ advisedly here, as other reviews have unfairly accused the band of declaring a love for Wet, Wet, Wet and Roxette. I don’t quite here that. It’s always a little bit reductive to search for reference points, but the way in which the vocals manage to both yelp and carry idiosyncratic melodies reminds me greatly of Andy Partridge’s songs for XTC. The rhythmic invention of the guitar lines reminds me of Orange Juice circa ‘Rip it Up’.The Police also seem to have been mentioned a lot in reviews of this record, and their influence is audible not just in Blaine’s vocals, but also in the frequent use of muted guitar strings. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the contemporary group I’m most reminded of when listening to ‘Twentyone’ is the similarly underrated Hot Hot Heat. There’s a straightforward immediacy and exuberance in most of these songs.

Much of the appeal of ‘Twentyone’ lies in its ability to take individual experiences and render them universal and believable. There are songs about one night stands, secret girlfriends (the ambiguous ‘MJ’, with its plea to ‘don’t tell anyone what we’ve got going on’), relationships heading nowhere fast, emotional confusion, lust and love. There are lyrics that capture relationship experience with pithy wisdom (‘I don’t want to be a ball and chain, it’s just that I’m afraid of change’, ‘he’s half in love with Elisabeth and half in love with you’, ‘the penny dropped even before I clocked just where your hands had been/It’s like you’d done your hair for somebody else, scared that you might have been seen’). All are delivered in a matter-of-fact, pleasingly non-judgmental way. For those of us on the wrong side of 25, it’s a sweetly nostalgic experience – for the band’s peers, it will no doubt capture their lives as they are living them, with lucidity and compassion.

There’s no doubt that the album benefits from two absolutely knockout pop songs. First, there’s ‘Young Love’, detailing the desperate consequences of a one-night stand with insight, candour and affection. It’s every bit as infectious and irresistible as pop music should be. It also features a guest appearance from Laura Marling. As a singer-songwriter, I wonder whether Marling really has the longevity of the great writers with whom she is all too frequently compared, and I actually sympathise with her for the weight of all the pressure on her at such a young age. I fear she won’t be talked about so much five years from now – but it’s great to hear her in an entirely different context, her understated delivery sounding far more of a strength than a limitation here. Then there’s ‘Two Doors Down’, a love song that is admittedly somewhat twee, but also remarkably good natured and affectionate. It tells a story of falling in love with a neighbour – ‘I hear her playing the drums late at night/The neighbours complain but that’s the kinda girl I like’. Most of the band’s legion of enthuasists would probably relate to the attraction!

Luckily, they are not the only gems here and most of the record is anything but filler. There’s the rampant, searching opener ‘Hideaway’, where the role of Alkan is perhaps most clearly audible in its synth bass lines and manipulated drums. ‘MJ’ is terrific, although the repetition of the refrain ‘Don’t tell anyone’ can’t help but remind me of Queens of the Stone Age’s ‘Lost Art of Keeping a Secret’, even if the two songs are hardly that close musically. ‘Flakes’ is a swooning ballad touched with genuine drama. Only the grating carousel waltz of ‘Umbrellahand’ really jars – it’s an unsuccessful experiment and distraction from the main flavour of the album that would have been better left in the studio vaults.

‘Twentyone’ seems remarkably natural, assured, unpretentious and confident. It also has a real sense of fun and humour to match its smart, hipster production values. It should elevate them to a much bigger audience – much to its credit, it’s a Pop album with a Capital P.

No comments: